Thursday, September 29, 2011

President Morales asks for forgiveness of indigenous peoples

Bolivian President Evo Morales apologized for the humiliation suffered by indigenous peoples at the hands of the police over the weekend, and said his government did not order the attacks, state media reported late Wednesday.

"We ask for forgiveness -- forgive me," Morales said,. "It was not an instruction by the president. No one in the government would have thought such an attack could happen to our indigenous brothers." Mr Morales said: "Pardon me. There was no presidential order to disperse the protest."

On Sunday, 500 police tear-gassed and rousted about half of 1,500 indigenous protesters making a 300-mile march to the capital, La Paz, to protest a road project through a national park on their ancestral homeland. The marchers say four people were killed, scores of protesters were injured and several others were missing. On Monday, Bolivian officials denied any deaths or injuries but promised to launch a full-scale investigation into the raid, which they said was undertaken to save lives and avoid confrontations.

The protests and popular fallout from the crackdown present a challenge for Morales, who has said the 300-kilometer (186-mile) highway is vital for economic development in South America's poorest country.

At the heart of the dispute lies the construction of a highway through the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park, a rainforest preserve commonly known by its Spanish acronym of TIPNIS. The Brazil-financed road would run through a nature preserve home to some 50,000 natives from three different indigenous groups.

The road is part of a network linking land-locked Bolivia, South America's only mostly indigenous nation, to both the Pacific through Chile and the Atlantic through Brazil, a key outlet for Bolivian exports.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Controversial Amazon Road Project Creates Crisis for Bolivia's Morales

Bolivia's Defense Minister has resigned in protest against a police crackdown on anti-highway demonstrators, increasing pressure on Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, over his handling of the situation.

Forty-one days into a march against government-supported plans to build a 300km (186 mi) highway through an Amazon rainforest reserve, police fired tear gas and briefly detained protesters in the Yucumo region on Sunday, prompting the minister's resignation on Monday.

Several people suffered minor injuries, according to local media reports, and the crackdown was criticised by opposition politicians, the ombudsman and several government officials, including Defense Minister Cecilia Chacon.

"This is not the way! We agreed to do things differently," Chacon wrote in her resignation letter, which was published by Bolivian media on Monday.

Ivan Canelas, the country's communications minister, said that police had no choice when responding to the protests.

"The march was defused because it had become a source of violence," he told the Reuters news agency.

Police surged into the demonstrators' camp with "extreme violence", veteran activist Maria Carvajal told the AFP news agency. "I could not believe what was happening."

On Monday, protesters reacted by setting barricades on fire on the airport runway in the town of Rurrenabaque, in an attempt to free about 300 marchers who were being held by authorities, Mayor Yerko Nunez told local media.

In La Paz, the capital, riot police set up a security cordon around the Quemada government building, as thousands of demonstrators gathered outside to protest the crackdown.

Other protests were also held in the central city of Cochabamba, where students marched and majority Aymara and Quechua indigenous peoples began a hunger strike.

Protests were also held in the northern province of Beni and in Santa Cruz.

Split in ruling party

Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, put the controversial $420m highway - mostly funded by Brazil's government - at the heart of his infrastructure plan for the country.

The highway has elicited fierce opposition, however, from local indigenous leaders, who traditionally support Morales. The split has exposed differences within Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party.

Some MAS lawmakers have expressed support for the demonstrators and the demands of the 12,000 residents of the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park, through which the proposed road would be built.

In June, Morales angered activists by saying that the road would be built through the territory "whether they like it or not".

Seeking to defuse tension over the issue, Morales said on Sunday that a referendum would be held in the provinces affected by the highway's construction, "so the people can decide whether the project should go ahead or not". Further details on the referendum were not available.

Morales is highly popular among the Quechua and Aymara indigenous majority in the Andean highlands, but opposition to his policies is strong in the eastern lowlands, even among indigenous groups.

Fallout from the unrest could put him in a defensive posture for the nationwide judicial elections in October, which are part of broader reforms put in place to give indigenous people more political power.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Bolivia Genocide Case: Ex-regime figures convicted, US shelters top fugitive

By Bill Weinberg September 15, 2011
indian country today media network

Bolivia’s Supreme Court of Justice on August 30 convicted seven former officials on charges of genocide—five military officers and two ex-cabinet ministers. The military officials received sentences of 10–15 years while the former cabinet ministers received three-year terms; none will be allowed to appeal. But Bolivia’s top fugitive in the genocide case—former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada—remains at large in the United States, which refuses to extradite.

The cases stem from the “Black October” of 2003, when the army fired on indigenous Aymara protesters at El Alto, the sprawling working-class city on the altiplano above La Paz. For weeks, protesters had blocked roads across the altiplano, demanding a halt to Sánchez de Lozada’s plans for a new pipeline to export natural gas to California on terms considered too easy for Shell Oil and other companies. On October 12, the army broke the blockades by force to deliver gasoline to La Paz—leaving 63 dead. In the aftermath, Sánchez de Lozada was forced to step down—and fled to Miami, along with two top cabinet ministers.

“The authors of the crimes are still free,” says Rafael Archondo, U.N.’s Permanent Representative of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. “They have all the freedom that they denied to the people when the people protested against them.”

Trials began in 2009, when the court began proceedings against Sánchez de Lozada in absentia. By then Bolivia had elected as president the Aymara social leader Evo Morales—the country’s first indigenous president—who had been a leader of the 2003 protests.

Sánchez de Lozada faces 30 years in prison if convicted. Seventeen other ex-officials from his administration also face genocide charges. Several of them have sought refuge in Peru, and Bolivia hopes the new government in Lima will agree to extradite.

But the trial of Sánchez de Lozada cannot be concluded without his presence under Bolivian law. The Morales government has requested the extradition of Sánchez de Lozada and two other defendants under a 1995 treaty with the U.S. A defense lawyer for victims’ families, Rogelio Mayta, issued another public plea for extradition after the recent convictions. Sánchez de Lozada’s attorneys assert he resides in the US legally and that the prosecutions are political.

The whereabouts of Sánchez de Lozada are not difficult to determine. In October 2005 a group of U.S. activists symbolically served him with a subpoena (in facsimile) at a public event in Washington where he was speaking, organized by Princeton University. He is now believed to be living in Virginia.

Extraditions must be vetted by the Justice Department before they are approved by the State Department. When asked for a comment on the Sánchez de Lozada case, Justice Department spokesperson Laura Sweeney said, “the department doesn’t confirm or comment on matters of extradition so we would decline to comment.”

State Department spokesperson Noel Clay said only that the statement “should be directed to the Justice Department.”

Archondo dismisses notions that the defendants would receive unfair treatment in Bolivia, pointing out that the two ex-cabinet members just convicted—former development minister Érick Reyes Villa and former labor minister Adalberto Kuajara —have been allowed to serve their three-year terms under house arrest rather than in prison.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay welcomed the convictions, calling them part of “a very healthy trend towards combatting long-standing impunity” in Latin America.

The two other officials Bolivia wants extradited are former defense minister Carlos Sánchez Berzain and former hydrocarbons minister Jorge Berindoague. Sánchez Berzain was granted asylum status in 2008—which sparked an angry march by thousands of El Alto residents on the U.S. embassy in La Paz. Archondo calls Sánchez Berzain the “specific intellectual author” of the Black October massacre. He decries that the ex-defense minister was treated “as if he was somebody who was being punished because of his thinking.”

Archondo says Sánchez Berzain speaks freely to media in U.S. and is widely quoted in the Bolivian press. “What kind of dictatorship would allow this?” he asks.

Archondo points out that Bolivia is the only country with an ex-dictator in prison—Luis García Meza, who seized power in a 1980 coup. “I think this is a good example of how a democracy should deal with history,” he says, calling it part of “the long process of recovering the legitimacy that we have now.”

Archondo says that if the U.S. remains intransigent, Bolivia may call for “international agencies to make an intervention” in the case. He acknowledges that if Bolivia does go to the international community with this case, the “genocide” charge might have to be reconsidered, given the rigorous world standards for this crime. “There was a debate in Bolivia as to whether to characterize this as a genocide,” he says. “Our supreme court decided that charge was applicable in this case. Of course, if it comes to an international trial, the justification for the charge of genocide must be really clear. “

Recalling the resource issues that underlay the 2003 unrest, Sánchez de Lozada also faces charges in Bolivia of skirting the law in awarding oil contracts to BP, the French giant TotalFinaElf, and other multinationals.

But this will remain a sideshow until after Sánchez de Lozada faces the far more serious genocide charges. “To impose order through a massacre, using the armed forces without respect for human rights—this was a terrible episode in our history, and we cannot forget this.,” concludes Archondo. “This is a wound in our democratic body.”